Abraham Lincoln set the standard. He was the exemplar of balance between strength and compassion. Rarely did he fail to apply moral justice when it was within his power.
“I shall do nothing in malice” he wrote in 1862. “What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.” When the Civil War was over, Lincoln did not send a message of triumph or vindictiveness. His was a message of compassion. “With malice toward none, with charity toward all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us finish the work we are in, to bind the nation’s wounds.”
Harry Truman followed the lead of Lincoln when World War II ended. He championed the Marshall Plan that supported the massive rebuilding of Central and Western Europe with $17 billion of American aid to revitalize economies and stabilize governments, all leading to a healthier climate abroad that would eventually benefit the US.
Lyndon B. Johnson launched a “war on poverty,” created Medicaid and Head Start, and passed sweeping civil rights laws. Supporting civil rights was at his own political peril. “If that is the cost for this bill, I will gladly pay it” he stated before he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In 1974, Gerald Ford pardoned former President Richard Nixon after the Watergate scandal. He believed the pardon would heal the wounds of Watergate so America could move on to addressing the economy and the last pangs of the Vietnam War. Even though Ford was not re-elected due to his actions, he lived to see history mark the compassion and selflessness of his act.
George H.W. Bush called for “a kinder, gentler nation. America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle.” He urged Americans to get involved in their communities as “a thousand points of light” and recognized almost every day of his presidency one of those volunteers (points of light).
George W. Bush was inspired by the biblical phrase “To whom much is given, much is required.” He committed an initial $15 billion to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS victims in Africa, the largest healthcare initiative ever launched by a single nation.
People talk about karma, about “reaping the seeds we sow,” and paying it forward. And then there’s the phrase “What goes around, comes around.” The present climate in America, as well as globally, seems to be straining against the need for compassion, kindness, and selflessness. Instead of working cooperatively, we are divided, and actions seem to bring forth the saying “Every man (or country) for himself (themselves).”
“All a good president tries to do is accomplish things for the good of the people.” April 3, 1988, Harry S. Truman
Truman’s rankings of his predecessors:
THE BEST THE WORST
George Washington Zachary Taylor
Thomas Jefferson Franklin Pierce
Andrew Jackson James Buchanan
James K. Polk Ulysses S. Grant
Abraham Lincoln Benjamin Harrison
Grover Cleveland Warren G. Harding
Woodrow Wilson Calvin Coolidge
Franklin D. Roosevelt Dwight D. Eisenhower
It is far too early to predict how history will remember this period in America. Let’s hope there will be some kindness or gesture that can be remembered.
“At times like these, when the future seems unsettled and uncertain, it can be easy to lose heart. When you turn on the television or read newspapers or blogs, the voices of cynicism and pessimism always seem to be the loudest. Don’t believe them.” Barack Obama, 2010
Truer now, than when he spoke those words.
What do you think?
(Source: Star-Ledger, Parade Magazine, historian Mark K. Updegrove)